Democratic Dialogue between Police and Low-Income Youth of Color


In 2015, the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that in order for community-policy relations to change, trust between them must develop. For that reason, the report calls for dialogues to occur in communities across the nation. Police and communities of color will educate each other, policymakers hope, as they engage in mutual deliberation about race and violence.

While cities and towns have begun to hold dialogues between police and communities, these sessions rarely include a population that is most vulnerable and often has among the most troubled of relationships with police: low-income youth of color. Interactions between police and these young people rarely occur in neutral and positive settings, but rather in tense encounters that perpetuate negative relationships and distrust.

The proposed study would investigate whether and how police and low-income youth of color learn from each other through dialogue and the ethical implications of asking them to do so. The study will examine, first, whether and how dialogue between youth of color and police shapes officers' beliefs and behavior in regard to these youth. Second, the study will examine whether and how low-income youth of color perceive dialogue as enhancing or undermining their well-being, sense of security, and civic agency. The researchers will pursue these aims through an in-depth longitudinal study of police and youth who participate in the work of Teem Empowerment, a non-profit organization that facilitates dialogue between police and high school-aged low-income youth of color. 

Time and depth characterize this study. Police and youth may walk away from dialogue feeling elated, but do these positive feelings last? They may leave angry, but does this discomfort create the foundation for better relations? To find out, the researchers will follow 20 police and 20 youth for 2.5 years. They will conduct 100 in-depth semi-structured interviews with 20 police officers and 100 in-depth semi-structured interviews with 20 youth. This will include 10 officers who participate in dialogue as new recruits and 10 officers who engage in dialogue later in their careers as well as 10 youth from each type of dialogue. Focusing a large number of interviews on a relatively small sample allows for a sustained in-depth engagement with the life of each person. This sample size, depth, and length of time will enable an analysis that does not primarily aggregate findings, but rather accomplishes what in-depth qualitative methods are especially well-equipped to do: investigate how dialogue is formative over time and in the lives of each officer and young person, in relation to complex webs of individual, departmental, peer, and socio-political influences. This will be complemented by surveys of larger numbers of youth and police to understand whether and how the interview responses are reflected more broadly among both groups.

In spite of a more challenging political climate, small non-profits around the country are respond to the Task Force Report's recommendations regarding dialogue between communities and police. These organizations require evidence that improves and expands their programs. This is important because improving officers' relationship with youth of color and giving officers the skills to engage differently with these youth could have significant implications for these young peoples' life trajectories - not to mention their sense of security in their own neighborhoods.